But what then? Conventional sentencing would plainly require a substantial spell in prison, an outcome unlikely to maintain the desire to change. Unconventional sentencing – any form of community sentence designed to promote reform and rehabilitation – would be likely to generate media uproar and public outrage. The solution to the problem has been a carrot and stick approach adopted as an experimental sentencing regime supported with a very demanding police and probation programme. First, the carrot. Offenders, if selected, are offered an opportunity to reform in the community with intensive contact with the probation and drug services and partnership organisations. They are housed, preferably away from their old haunts and friends. They are provided with educational, housing, family and medical support where necessary. Counselling, work experience and opportunities to engage in restorative justice are made available. These carrots start while the offender is on bail under assessment. They continue during a six-month deferment of sentence and a three-year community order. But there is an ever-present stick. Offenders on the programme are very carefully watched by the police and probation services. Often they voluntarily wear GPS monitors. If, at any stage, they offend or breach the conditions of their bail or their undertakings as to conduct while on deferment, or any of the requirements of their community order, they risk receiving the prison sentence which is commensurate with the totality of their offending. That is often a five- or six-year term, for it is a requirement before they are released on bail that they ask for all their offending to be taken into consideration – and they are told that it will be, come what may.

Selecting the right people for the programme is all-important. They must be non-violent acquisitive offenders. They must have a burning desire to change their criminal way of life, and they must be assessed as having the will and ability to achieve that change. Experience has shown that they generally need to be at least in their mid-twenties. Younger people, it seems, have not usually reached a point where a full awareness of their predicament, and their likely future if they do not take action, gives them a determination to change which will last throughout the rigorous programme.

Hertfordshire Police coined a title for the programme – Choices and Consequences. That title aptly catches the elements of personal responsibility and continued commitment demanded of the offenders, and the result if that is not maintained to the end. When it was extended to Bedfordshire it was given the slightly less catchy title – Integrated Offender Management (Prolific/Intensive) Programme. In both counties it now occupies the top end of the integrated offender managementprogramme and is run by a dedicated team of probation and police officers. Each team works together in its own office, thus ensuring that there is the maximum possible exchange of relevant information.

A number of features make these programmes unique in sentencing terms:

  • By making a clean breast of his offending past, each candidate is better enabled to make a fresh start. Initial honesty seems to beget a habit of honesty not often seen by sentencers of acquisitive offenders or addicts. Interestingly, that habit often persists even after re-offending.
  • Candidates for the programme are all told by the judge at the outset what custodial sentence they would receive if they were to be sentenced there and then. The prospect of receiving that sentence or something very close to it hangs over them for the next three-and-a-half to four years if they fail to honour their commitments to the programme or reoffend. It is not something they forget.
  • Throughout their time on the programme, offenders see the judge at regular intervals, usually monthly at least to start with. They are required by the judge to write on topics selected at such meetings and to report their progress or explain their lack of it. Their letters often provide remarkable insights into their problems and their motivation. Lack of literary skill does not seem to hamper self-expression.
  • Judicial continuity is important. So far as practicable the same judge deals with the offender from start to finish.

Choices and consequences (or C2 as it has become known locally) is in its seventh year of operation. Bedfordshire’s programme is in its third year. The numbers selected for the programmes are small. Fewer than 150 in all have been selected so far. There is also, inevitably, a high failure rate. But those who run it are convinced that it can make permanent changes in the lives of some, turning them from prolific offenders into upright citizens; and there are signs that even those who fail tend significantly to reduce the rate and seriousness of their offending. However, effectiveness is difficult to measure. It will require academic and criminological research, which of course costs money. For some time there has been agreement on the need for such an assessment but no one was prepared to pay for it. Now, however, a national charity has expressed interest in funding the research and it is hoped that there will be a report on the programmes within a year. Unless and until their effectiveness is demonstrated these programmes must be regarded as experimental and confined to the counties where they are currently in operation. But if they are shown to be effective in reducing crime there is the prospect that they may be extended to other areas of the country. There is certainly a lot of interest and enthusiasm from other police and probation services who would like to start them up elsewhere.

HH Michael Baker QC, DL